Dear Word Detective: I have been a big baseball fan all my 53 years of life. While listening to a baseball game, I heard the announcers talking about a pitch called “Uncle Charlie.” But never having played much baseball myself, I was surprised that I did not know what kind of pitch it was, much less the origin of the phrase itself. Hoping you won’t toss me a curve ball but shoot me an answer “down the pipe”! — Simon Bernard.
I’ll take a swing at it, but I can’t promise I’ll get a hit. Incidentally, that pretty much sums up my own career in high school baseball. A congenital lack of depth perception became a passport to the obscurity of the outfield, where I lived in mortal terror of fly balls. To this day, the words “line drive” make me flinch.
Fortunately, your question provides me with an opportunity to mention a book that even I, who have been paying only casual attention to baseball for most of my life, find absolutely fascinating. It’s the updated and vastly expanded Dickson Baseball Dictionary (Third Edition)
(Paul Dickson, W.W. Norton & Co.), first published to wide acclaim in 1989 and now grown to include more than 10,000 definitions and more than 250 photographs, many of them previously unpublished. In this enormous book (more than 970 pages), Paul Dickson has captured the full sweep of the unique language of baseball from the 19th century to the present in delightfully obsessive detail. This is not a hodgepodge collection of slang, but a serious historical dictionary, the closest thing to the Oxford English Dictionary that a sport has ever produced. And it’s not surprising that baseball is the sport that has spawned such a work. From “fungo” (a ball hit in fielding practice) to “can of corn” (an easily-caught fly ball) to “down the pipe” (a fast pitch through the center of the strike zone), the history of baseball is inseparable from the vast range of colorful lingo it has inspired. Oddly enough, as Dickson explains in his introduction, the unique vocabulary of baseball incurred the wrath of linguistic purists in the early 20th century, who wanted newspapers to stop using “baseballese” in their sports reports because it was thought to pose a danger to “proper” English. Such crusades never work, but we are especially lucky that this one failed.
Meanwhile, back at your question, an “Uncle Charlie” (also known as a “Lord Charles” or “Sir Charles”) is a curveball, a pitch that veers away as it nears the batter . Dickson dates the first use of “Uncle Charlie” to 1935, in a column by Walter Winchell in the Havana Evening Telegram. Unfortunately, the etymology of the term is stubbornly obscure. But Dickson suggests that the words “Uncle Charlie” themselves are onomatopoetically suggestive of a curve ball, presumably with the soothing “Uncle” evoking the initially bland course of the ball and the explosive “ch” of “Charlie” suggesting the moment when the ball swerves out of reach. It’s a plausible theory, though a bit unsatisfying. I did a bit of poking around and found that Charles Graham, owner of the San Francisco Seals minor league team in the 1920s, was known to players and fans of that era as “Uncle Charlie,” so perhaps there’s a connection there. In any case, “Uncle Charlie” is very much still in use today. Its superlative form, “Lord Charles,” was coined in 1984 in tribute to New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden’s curveball, considered to be in a different league than the average “Uncle Charlie.”